Pete Buttigieg and the Most Convenient Narrative

Democratic 2020 presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., April 6, 2019. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

Jim Treacher asks when Mike Pence has ever had a quarrel with Pete Buttigieg, pointing out that the vice president has never said anything negative about the South Bend mayor.

The “quarrel” between Pence and Buttigieg more or less begins and ends with Pence’s decision to support and sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act back in 2015, which allowed individuals and companies to cite their religious beliefs and significant burdens upon those beliefs in legal proceedings. Opponents such as Buttigieg charged that the law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. The law was broadly popular; it passed the Indiana Senate 40 to 10 and the Indiana House 63-31. After Pence signed it into law, opponents vehemently denounced the law as “state-sanctioned discrimination.” Several large companies, sports leagues, and nonprofit institutions threatened to boycott the state. After about a week, Indiana lawmakers enacted an amendment that clarified that the RFRA could not be cited in certain discrimination cases.

In today’s Morning Jolt, I went through Buttigieg’s autobiography and noted that he describes his relationship with the then-governor as “complicated,” but that complication is mostly disagreeing on the RFRA. Buttigieg can never muster any examples of Pence being rude, hostile, or hateful, or ever making an issue out of Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, but the mayor laments “the complications of being openly gay in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

Buttigieg may not have wanted to run as “the gay candidate” in the 2020 primary, but that’s the angle that many national media reporters find most interesting — or perhaps just the easiest one. “Young gay mayor takes on a homophobic, theocratic vice president” is a storyline they’re itching to tell. The fact that Pence never lives down to the stereotype of a sneering hate-monger is immaterial. Sure, lots of Democratic activists and the Twitter crowd love identity politics, but a lot of people covering the nation’s lawmakers love to look at events through the lens of identity politics as well.

I suspect that you’ll see Cory Booker and Kamala Harris get a lot of coverage positioning them as the defiant African-Americans standing up to an allegedly racist president, and the same with Julian Castro (to the extent he gets coverage at all). The top women candidates will be said to be offering a sharp contrast to a vulgar, misogynist president who never escaped the legacy of the Access Hollywood tape, and so on.

These may or may not be the issues these candidates want to emphasize; they may prefer to discuss their plans for the economy or education or climate change or whatever — to compete for the support of all kinds of primary voters. They may even find the “heroic minority stands up to the straight white male bully” coverage to be a little pigeonholing or stereotyping. But the media knows what it likes, and the Democratic candidates will feel a gravitational pull in the direction of these kinds of familiar narratives.

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